As I’ve said many times in my posts, back pain is a complicated problem. There are so many things that can contribute to your pain, joint dysfunction, muscle imbalance, bad posture/habits, and so on.
In this post, I’m going to focus just on why tight muscles can cause back pain and then give you a couple of suggestions to help keep that problem from happening.
Let’s start with reasons why a muscle may become tight:
Why Muscles May Become Tight
- Injury – Sometimes when you injure yourself, your body will tighten the muscles around the injured area to serve as a splint. This is a protective mechanism to help prevent further injury to the area. You will typically know why your muscles are tight in this instance.
- Inactivity – This is more of a long-term or chronic issue. Without regular activity, our muscles become shortened and tight. This is one of the main reasons we feel stiff as we get older and don’t do any physical activity on a regular basis.
- Overuse – Wait! Didn’t I just say not using them made them tight and now using them too much makes them tight? Not exactly. What I mean by overuse is when we use muscles repeatedly for activities they are not designed for.
The example that immediately comes to mind is your upper trapezius (trap) muscle, which is the muscle that runs along the back your neck and the top of your shoulders.
A common problem today is what we call anterior head carriage. This is when people carry their head in front of their shoulders, usually as a result of poor posture when using the computer or looking down at their phone all the time.
The upper trap muscle has to engage when the head is in that position to help support it since it is no longer over the spine. Imagine if you walked around all day with your arm flexed. Do you think that your bicep muscle would get a little tight and sore? That’s what is happening to your upper trap muscle when you have bad posture.
Do you think that your bicep muscle would get a little tight and sore? That’s what is happening to your upper trap muscle when you have bad posture.
This happens in our low back too when our gluteal (butt) muscles are weak. The muscles in our lower back are having to kick to do the work that the glut muscles are supposed to do.
Why does all this matter when it comes to your back pain? Well, what do your muscles attach to? The skeleton, right? Good answer 🙂
When your muscles become tight, they restrict the motion of the bones they attach to and it can alter the way you move. Think about how you move the day after doing yard work all weekend at the first of the year except, in the case of tight muscles developed over time (chronic), the effect is a lot more subtle.
You typically don’t notice the problem until it begins to cause you pain or you try to do some physical activity and realize you are not near as flexible as you once were.
When we change the way our joints move, it can start to wear on our joint services. Now, our bodies are miraculous creations that can adapt to A LOT. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s good because if we felt pain every time we did something outside of what our bodies were design for, then we would never do anything.
Our ability to adapt is bad because we can continue to do the thing that is harming us without knowing it. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, pain is usually the last symptom to show up and the first one to leave
Because of this, pain isn’t a very good way to judge the status of our health. By the time you feel pain, something usually has been brewing for awhile and our body has hit its adaptation limit.
That’s why many people that experience back pain will be doing a normal daily activity, like taking a shower, getting dressed, getting out of bed, etc., when they first feel the pain or their back “goes out”.
What Can You Do About It?
If you’re not sure if your muscles are on the little tight side, stand upright and bend over and try to touch your toes or the floor the best you can. If you feel tightness in your lower back or if your legs need to bend to reach anywhere below your knees then you probably need to work on your flexibility.
So the first thing you’ll want to do is start stretching on a regular basis. When I work with patients, I usually teach them to stretch their lower back and their hamstrings (the muscles on the back of your upper legs).
To stretch your hamstrings, you can do the standing hamstring stretch that is pictured above. You can modify it by sitting on the floor and reaching towards your toes as well.
Another stretch that I recommend is to lay on your back and bring your knee up to your chest. You can grab the top of your knee or behind your knee to help pull it up to your chest. Hold that stretch for about 15-20 seconds and then do the other leg.
The next thing is to be more physically active on a regular basis. You may have heard the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking”. Our culture’s sedentary nature is killing us. A vast majority of the leading causes of death can be attributed to our poor diet and lack of exercise. I’m not going to tell you which activity you should do but just do something.
Find some activities you enjoy doing and do those things. As I always say, the best exercise is the one you will do. I dive more into this topic in my free ebook (yes, that’s a shameless plug). One particular activity that has shown a lot of beneficial effects specifically for your back is yoga. It also helps reduce stress. I’m not saying you have to do it, just making a suggestion.
If you continue to have trouble with muscle tightness and back pain, then I would recommend visiting a chiropractor (yes, that’s another shameless plug). All kidding aside, chiropractic can be very beneficial in these types of situations. A chiropractor will evaluate your muscle function, identify why your muscles are tight, and then can prescribe you stretches or strengthening exercise depending on what you need.
In addition to treating your muscles, a chiropractor can adjust the joints that are not moving properly to help get you aligned and moving properly again. You can’t really fix one without fixing the other. Your muscles and skeleton are really two sides of the same circle. You can’t pull on one side without affecting the other.
I hope that this post helped to make some sense of how tight muscles can cause low back pain. If you have questions, you can always get in touch with me through the website or by calling the clinic. I want to encourage you to get checked out by a chiropractor that will treat both the spine and the muscles, whether in our office or somewhere else. Just get checked out. It’s much easier to fix something in the early stages than in the later stages.